Taking the ‘stop’ out of dystopia, the second of Black Mirror’s three dramas from Charlie Brooker presents a future in which work is literally an endless, soul-sapping grind and recreation is a relentless sensory bombardment of banality and porn which people pay premiums to opt-out of (where it’s allowed – the watching of commercials and trailers is mandatory).
The only permanent way of leaving a meaningless trudge through mediocrity that lasts from birth to the seat of your exercise bike – where you grind out electricity in a factory full of other riders until you become too fat, old or weak to do it anymore – to death is to spunk away the titular fifteen million merits (that’s money, economics fans) on an audition for the all-powerful, all-pervading reality talent show, Hot Shot.
Daniel Kaluuya (The Fades) stars as Bing, a fairly ordinary guy straddling the immobile pillion to the grave and trying to ignore the thunderingly unlikable Geordie rager whose bike is immediately adjacent to his own.
Dustin (Paul Popplewell) subsists on a diet of Wraith Babes porn and his favourite gameshow, ‘Botherguts’ (an idea straight out of TV Go Home where the morbidly obese are perpetually showered in gunk) while screaming abuse at people and perving on the new girl in their sector, Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay).
‘Yeah, I’d love to fucking ruin that an’ all,’ he conspiratorially whispers to Bing, whose feelings for the newcomer are at the polar opposite of the sensitivity scale. When he hears Abi singing in the toilet, Bing offers her the money he inherited from his brother for a Hot Shot audition.
Unfortunately, the three judges, Wraith (Ashley Thomas), Hope (Rupert Everett) and Charity (Julia Davis) – who, like Hot Shot itself, share no legally recognisable similarities with anything in the real world, Simon – are only moderately impressed and offer her a role as a Wraith Babes wank idol instead.
‘Realistically, it’s that or the bike,’ Judge Charity says. With the audience of doppels (digital doubles) chanting ‘Do it, do it, do it!’ and a tear already welling in Charity’s eye, Abi agrees – and the next time Bing sees her, she’s being … well … ruined on the screens in his cell, still singing the song she hoped would make her famous.
Enraged, Bing saves up another fifteen million merits and sneaks a bit of broken glass into his own Hot Shot audition, planning to draw the stupefied viewing public’s attention to the fact that the show – and the world – has long since gone to absolute shit.
Daniel Kaluuya’s performance here is so amazing, you can even forgive him for appearing in Johnny English Reborn (he had us at: ‘There’s only so much wonder we can take’) but unluckily for Bing, it’s too good.
The impressed judges offer him a twice-weekly talk show, delivering endless versions of the same, fight the power, stick it to THE MAN tirades – and, of course, a new life off the bike and out of his cell. He agrees, of course, and moves into a flat (decor: Kevin McCloud meets Brian Topp from Spaced in an Ikea-furnished version of Tartarus) where he listens to Abi’s audition song and gazes out of a real window at a real forest landscape.
Then again, maybe it’s just another video. The piece of glass with which he intended to slash his neck, live on TV, is now kept safe in a velvet-lined box for each show – it’s become his gimmick. He’s still alone and his life remains the same, incessant drudgery, but hey … he’s off the bike, right?
Although the moral is more sledgehammer than subtle (tolerate cack today, live in cacotopia tomorrow) and the claustrophobic vision of the future is both less dismaying than last week’s equally bleak version of the present and less funny as well, the desolation that suffuses Fifteen Million Merits like the air of pitying smugness that wafts around an Apple shop when you whisper quietly to the staff that your first generation iPod shuffle has gone wrong is strangely compulsive.
It’s quite enjoyable to wallow in the knowledge that the world really is going to get this bad. But then, the bloody human race gives you just a glimmer of optimism.
The moment where Bing shyly holds Abi’s hand is sweet; the moment his doppel appears on her screens with the golden ticket to go on Hot Shot is genuinely touching. The trouble is, you know that these are just tiny icons of warmth on a giant iPad screen of frosty doom, and this makes the whole thing even more profoundly depressing – highly watchable, but utterly wretched.
To quote John Cleese in Clockwise: ‘It’s not the despair; it’s the hope I can’t stand.’
Aired at 9pm on Sunday 11th December 2011 on Channel 4.
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